Thursday, July 23, 2009

Places I have known...


On Tuesday, my son and I took the Green Line to the Brown Line, and rode that in a long zigzagged path across the middle of the city, to near the end of the line, where the famously elevated train points its nose down and riders find themselves at street level. The Rockwell stop is almost jarringly different from any other stop I can think of in Chicago's long, wide train trail. Instead of looking out at grey back porches, behemoth steel buildings or crowded streets, when one walks out on the platform at Rockwell, it's like a little slice of quaint Americana suddenly: there are trees, human-scale shops, open sidewalks that look freshly swept right there at street level. No need to descend down a vertiginous stairwell to get to the street below: one is where she needs to be practically as soon as she grabs her son's hand and hops off the train.

This was my stop years ago, back in the early nineties, having moved there not long after another George had sent soldiers and a fusillade of gunfire to Iraq. I came to live here, in the residential area between Lincoln Square and Ravenswood Manor, after living at my parent's home in the northern suburbs for six torturous months post-graduation. Living with my parents was a rude, harsh awakening for a girl who had been coming and going as she pleased for four years, on the phone whenever the desire struck, stumbling through the door in a loud, wow-I'm-lucky-to-have-made-it-home-alive whoosh of keys and purse straps. Admittedly, my habits at twenty-one left a lot to be desired. The me of today is rolling my eyes at this once-me, and she is rolling her mascara-flecked eyes defiantly right back. Still, if you really thought about it, you'd feel sorry for this once-me at twenty-one: I had come from a town I loved, left the friends I adored, to return to the place I had dashed out of years before, a house with so many unhappy memories and more in the making, still under the dictatorship of an authority figure with whom I fundamentally and frequently clashed. To say I was eager to leave this home again is an understatement.

Back home again, to a place that now felt like anything but, I had just one good friend, Eric, whom I was close with in college. One day Eric decided he wanted to take black-and-white photos of me at the beach - it was chilly but sunny and beautiful, from what I remember, a perfect autumn day - and afterwards we wandered back to his apartment. Eric was my lifeline then, a rumpled, brilliant, hilarious friend who dabbled in socialism and wound up at the University of Chicago on an academic track. He was leaving town, though, lured to Miami (a place he hated and left before long) but he felt terrible about leaving my sad sack self behind after we had dreamed of playing house together and buying leafy plants and French presses (I didn't have the heart to tell him that I killed plants and was revolted by coffee - it didn't matter). Eric was leaving, though, which was awful enough, and the likelihood of an early release from the North Shore seemed to be swirling in a cruelly drawn-out fashion down the drain as well. I think Eric felt terrible about leaving me, and so on that October afternoon back at his apartment with all his taped up moving boxes depressingly all around us, he introduced me to Judith, a friend of his roommates, someone who was also in search of a new life.

Judith, a recent Detroit transplant, wasted no time in convincing me that we had to go to bars in cute black dresses together, discuss literature and writing up into the wee hours, shield one another through the slings and arrows of life, and if we were to do all this, we should be roommates. Judith was very intense and protective; she was both an opera singer and a poet so she required a particular degree of drama in life. She was tall, with long, curly dark hair and olive skin. Judith was also very maternal, which was useful as I was in the market for being adopted and my marketability was diminishing.

Within a matter of months, we were roommates, living in a beautiful, large two-flat with wood floors and a bright sun room in Lincoln Square. Judith had the place picked out and I eagerly signed on, knowing nothing about the neighborhood or what the future might hold, just eager to be pulled to a dramatically different tide as I tried to figure out what to do with my fine arts degree and life in general. I bought an antique bed and vanity from Judith's ex-boyfriend, a gay musician who came to accept and embrace his homosexuality after their break up, and to this day, I still have that set in our guest room. At the time, it was the only bit of furniture I owned and I was so proud of it. Today, I climb on that pretty dark wood bed to read the morning newspaper, and every day, I am reminded of our apartment on Leland, a place I lived for a relatively short amount of time, but a time that is etched deeply in my mind nonetheless.

The Lincoln Square of the nineties was quite a different scene than it is today, though some things remain unchanged. There is still the European feel but back then, there were more actual Europeans, retired college professors and landlords who sat in the sun across the street from the German deli. The square, a cute little diagonal strip between Lawrence and Lincoln, was a ten minute walk from our apartment, and this was the hub of the neighborhood. There was the Brauhaus, still in operation, a German restaurant into which no vegetarian should ever tread (a thickly accented server there once offered me hassenpfeffer, or rabbit, as a dish suitable for a vegetarian, but thankfully I spent much of my childhood watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and was wise to her). There was the Merz Apocathary, also still standing, an ancient, long and narrow shop, all wooden counters and thick but pleasant herby scent throughout. This was the place to get homeopathic hangover remedies and Dead Sea bath salts; as a lover of both vodka tonics and aromatic baths, this place received a fair percentage of my paycheck. Lincoln Square was also lined with bakeries, trinket shops filled with miniature glass pieces and under stern German management, burrito joints, an imported shoe shop, a crowded antique emporium, a couple of Thai restaurants. The L tracks curved sharply overhead, intersecting the square at Western Avenue, above the bus terminal; gangs of pigeons noisily shot up each time a train rumbled past. This was home.

Specifically, though, home was a few blocks west, down Leland to where the trees start pushing together and the earth begins to buckle up around the river. If one were to venture a little farther west, she would find a pretty natural area in Chicago, almost wild in places, formed around the river that feeds into our beautiful Lake Michigan; there are docks and boats in back yards, geese floating past. On my block, though, it was pretty removed from this more natural setting, living so close to Western and Lawrence.

Just down the street from me, two blocks away, was Rockwell, where my son and I left the train. Trains pass frequently here, and, as I said, they are right there at street level, so one has to wait behind the long arm of the gate often. My son doesn't remember this, but back when we went to the Waldorf school on Friday mornings during his toddler days, we would often come here afterwards to sit and watch the trains go by: for a small child in love with railroad gates, also known as ding-dong lights, the Rockwell stop is a mecca. There's a cute little shopping district right here, now known as Rockwell Crossing, which was then known to Judith and I by the much less evocative but perfectly useful phrase "by the train stop." Back when I lived here in my early twenties, there was a grocery store on the corner, one with a friendly woman behind the cash register who also was the owner (was she Hispanic? Middle Eastern? I don't remember, but I do remember that she was very sweet). I could buy my basic necessities there - in my case at the time, the list was short: chips and salsa, laundry detergent, not much else - and they had a little produce section that grew droopier as the week progressed. There was a scary Chinese take-out place in a forbidding brick building with obscured glass blocks; I ventured into here only once or twice as it was unsettling even to my low standards. Across the street, there was the WomanMade Art Gallery, and for a time, I briefly thought I might have found my place here, drawing with others on Saturday mornings, but they moved out shortly after I moved in. Down the street, on the other side of the train tracks, was a bizarre southern bar, not southern-themed in a kitschy, ironic, post-modern sort of way, but in a Confederate flag hanging out front, too-scary-to-even-go-inside-to-make-fun-of sort of way. There was always a motorcycle or two out front and occasionally a dude with lots of facial hair and a Camel t-shirt face down in the sidewalk planter. I always gave this place a wide berth, crossing the street whenever I needed to pass.

In the Rockwell Crossing of today, which I see laid over the train stop shopping district of the past like a transparency with a different Sharpie-drawn details over the same raw structures, that southern bar is now a bar and grill (or is it a grille?) with an expensive awning and American-style menu but no passed out bikers or Confederate flags in front. The grocery store is long gone, replaced by a successful parent-and-child yoga studio. There is a doggy boutique, bagel shop, photography studio, a midwife's office, an upscale shop for the home. If anything reflects the changing nature of the neighborhood, it is this little section off the Brown Line.

This was where I lived when I met John, the father of my son, my partner. But that marked the end of my Lincoln Square days. Before I met John, there were languorous Sunday brunches in our apartment, and this was where I learned that I loved to cook. There was the three women group Judith had put together as a cappella singers, practicing once a week (it would end badly one day, with slammed doors and I remember shock at the ease with which angry curse words could shout from the mouths that had once formed angelic harmonies together). There was the sad family upstairs: a very passive, nervous wife, a wavy-haired toddler and a hotheaded, wild-eyed husband who stalked across the creaky wooden floors downstairs, screaming at them both every day. I remember grilling corn on a little Hibachi in the tiny square of grass in our back yard, and I remember the time Judith accidentally knocked an air conditioner out of one of our windows and held on to it by the cord as she called for me frantically (and I remember seeing our Arabic neighbors in the building pressed up close to ours next door, a group of two or three men, watching the scene wordlessly of us trying to coax that precarious and expensive machine back up to the window as if they were watching a movie). I remember boyfriends and break-ups in a way that seems unbelievable now, a revolving door of would-be and ill-fated suitors. I remember our European landlord, a man who inflamed Judith with his patronizing airs and hit on me every time he stopped by. I remember my horror as a man beat his girlfriend in front of our house in the middle of the night and Judith's response, which was more irritation at being awaked then anything: she came from Detroit, after all, she had witnessed a murder up close as a child. (I also remember the woman's horrible, guttural crying - like a mortally wounded animal, a mother who had lost a child - and that she threw up on the grass; I ran outside to help her but by that time, she had disappeared into the night.) I remember the woman who sat with her son on the front porch of a two-flat down the street, telling him in a voice that rang up into my ears like it was spoken for me alone to hear, "Danny, that is not a need, it is a want." I vowed right then that I would be a mother like her one day.

And now, seventeen years after Judith and I parted - again, not well, with me feeling overwhelmed and her feeling abandoned - I was walking down Leland with my son, my very own. He got a juice at the bagel shop and we walked past my old apartment, the one where I slept off too many hangovers but also the one where I fell in love with the tall, long-haired and recently divorced Scandinavian looking man who was part of the Green Mill poetry slam after-party that found its way to our home. I pointed out our house, and my son remarked that it was beautiful. "That's where I lived when I met Dad," I told him, with so many other memories flooding through me it was almost hard to talk. We stopped at the playground on the end of Leland where it meets Elizabeth, a tiny playground with the bare minimum of equipment but one that my son enjoyed nonetheless. On this day, a van from the park district was in front, and there was a long table set up with chairs. The Craftmobile apparently sets up here with watercolor paints, brushes, cups and paper every week. There was nothing special about the materials - just the same cheap stuff one could get at any dollar store - but as with so much in life, the idea of shifting things up a bit, of painting outdoors in this case, brought droves of kids and their caregivers to the little playground. My son did a quick painting of a space ship, whipping it out one-two-three like Picasso did as an old man, confident and impatient, and then he was ready to go.

We walked back to the Rockwell stop and we waited behind the gate for another train to pass. It whizzed by, just a couple feet from our noses, and I held on to my son extra tight. The Rockwell stop never ceases to shake me up a little.